Paul Sutherland has been a very busy man lately. This is as it should be, considering the city councillor for Ward 33 (Don Valley East) is trying so hard to position himself for a run at the mayor's chair come next year's municipal vote. In case you haven't noticed, Sutherland has been glomming onto every right-of-centre cause going these days in a well-thought-out effort to differentiate himself from the growing roster of potential candidates for the once venerable position of Toronto's chief magistrate.
If this means the North Yorker must be even more hard-line conservative than Mayor Mel Lastman's deputy, councillor Case Ootes, then so be it. In a civic election battle that's fast shaping up to be a vicious left-versus-right donnybrook, it doesn't hurt to put some distance between yourself and the current right-wing favourite to be His Wash-up's malleable successor.
So, when Ootes and Lastman were arguing that the wage and job security provisions they'd offered the city's striking outside workers were generous and fair, Sutherland was going public with a letter he'd sent the mayor saying the offer was "excessive" and urging him not to extend it to inside workers who were on the verge of walking out.
"Substantial pay hikes and guaranteed jobs will only guarantee further service reductions," the councillor maintained. "City council requires flexible union agreements and the ability to manage the city's affairs without being handcuffed in every decision we make."
When nothing came of that entreaty, and CUPE Local 79 joined Local 416 on the picket line, Sutherland drummed up sufficient council support to demand that the mayor issue an ultimatum to the unions. Either they agree to put the city's final offer to a vote by their members or it would be withdrawn. That would show them who's boss.
Unfortunately, the provincial government stepped in with back-to-work legislation before the unions could tell the city to stick its threat where the sun doesn't shine -- or words to that effect. But that was of little consequence to the politically ambitious ward rep. With the less-than-exciting Ootes increasingly tied to Lastman's record of managerial incompetence, Sutherland came across to many run-the-city-like-a-big-business types as a take-charge kind of guy who wouldn't be afraid to go toe-to-toe with organized labour.
This is the same councillor who recently voiced objections to the city's new Official Plan because the transit-based strategy to accommodate a million more residents would increase traffic congestion by discriminating against citizens with cars.
"This is not a vision, it's a dream -- that somehow you can bring in these people and they'll all get on a public transit system," Sutherland said. "It could take 100 years to build the transit system network this city requires."
His more immediate solution to the "transportation disaster" concealed in the Official Plan? Well, for starters, Sutherland says, toll lanes should be added to the Don Valley Parkway.
"If I'm the mayor, roads will get better," he promises. "There's no doubt about it."
It would seem the unofficial campaign for Toronto's top political job is already well underway for the councillor, who himself spent fours years as Lastman's deputy during a decade of local government involvement in pre-amalgamation North York. Sutherland left politics in 1997 to join the controversial "transition team" that oversaw the creation of the megacity. He made his electoral return 20 months ago and has undeniably had his eye on the best office on the second floor of City Hall from the moment he walked back in the door.
"The positions I'm trying to articulate are the ones I feel residents across the city are supportive of," Sutherland maintains. He's taking strong positions because "that's how you move public opinion.'
One thing he insists he's not doing is trying to force major political players who supported Lastman in the past to choose between him and Ootes.
"If they want to come to me, that's fine," the councillor notes, "but there are a lot of other people who feel they've been disenfranchised by what's gone on at council, and it's them I want to speak for."
Sutherland is adamant that "if I decide to go" after the mayoralty "I'll go regardless" of whether or not Ootes is in the race. In fact, the more candidates on the ballot the better, he says. It means the issues will be properly debated in a public forum.
Sutherland agrees the 2003 election could very well come down to a choice between the more corporate agenda of the right and the one being articulated on the left by politicians like councillor David Miller and former Toronto mayor Barbara Hall.
"I think there are some philosophical issues that are very political, and they have to be addressed one way or the other," he says. "But once those issues are decided, there's a lot of common ground."
Just don't expect Sutherland to get there by bus.